Member of the Privy Council (1966), Order of the Companion of Honour (1972), Order of St Michael and St George - Knight Grand Cross (1977)

10 March 1971 — 5 December 1972 1 year, 271 days

Billy McMahon became leader of the Liberal Party and Australia's 20th prime minister after the resignation of John Gorton.


23 February 1908
Sydney, New South Wales


31 March 1988
Sydney, New South Wales


Sonia McMahon



Photo: Robert Pearce/Fairfax

10 March 1971 — 5 December 1972 1 year, 271 days


Billy McMahon took on the forces of protectionism, including within his own Coalition government, to try to accelerate the reorientation of the Australian economy. For this reason, as well as traditional rivalries, he needed to overcome significant resistance to become the first non-Victorian Liberal prime minister. Considered a 'safe pair of hands', McMahon's political tactics did not endear him to his colleagues or to the public. 

Billy McMahon in a car passenger seat looking out the window.

Photo: News Ltd/Newspix

McMahon developed an interest in politics from an early age, and his father and uncle, a former Sydney Lord Mayor, had both been active in the United Australia Party.  McMahon had degrees from the University of Sydney in law and economics.

He was an active member of the Sydney establishment and social scene, attending the Randwick races and enjoying music and ballet. McMahon had been Treasurer, was considered a capable minister in a range of senior portfolios, and Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, yet was unable to reap the full benefit of his considerable experience while prime minister.

Despite the program of change offered by Whitlam, the swing to Labor in 1972 was restricted by the Coalition's campaign to only 2.5%. McMahon stayed on the front bench until 1974 and held his seat of Lowe until his retirement from politics in 1982. 


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McMahon had little time before the 1972 election to arrest what appeared to be an inevitable Whitlam victory. McMahon did try to counter Whitlam’s progressive policy agenda with his own program. He proposed a National Urban and Regional Development Authority, called for an inquiry into poverty and changes to allow federal government control of child care centres.

McMahon continued the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, but was not convinced about embracing its land rights suggestions, preferring a system of leasing land to Aboriginal people. In an effort to increase his public support McMahon included income tax cuts and pension increases in the Budget. In many cases, however, the McMahon Government’s policies were reactions to the Labor policy agenda.

An example of this was McMahon's criticism of Whitlam’s 1971 visit to communist China. It was soon revealed that American president Richard Nixon had also accepted an invitation to visit China in an effort to normalise relations between the two countries. When pressed on this in Parliament, McMahon had to concede, ‘It’s our policy too’.  

Billy McMahon is walking with his hat in hand looking at the camera with a camera man behind him.

Photo: News Ltd/Newspix